Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Understanding autism
Understanding autism

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.1 Media portrayals of autism

How is autism portrayed in the media? You can explore this question in the activity below.

Activity 3 Media portrayals of autism

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Think about the 1988 film Rain Man and two more recent media or fictional representations of autism. These could be films, TV series, books, etc. How accurate was Rain Man’s representation of autism? Do you think that media representations have become more authentic in recent works? Can you think of any portrayals of women? (Note: if you have not seen Rain Man, you can look up a synopsis on Wikipedia).

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


It is only possible to discuss one or two of the different representations of autism here. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays the autistic character Raymond Babbitt with a skilful and convincing portrayal of social detachment, naivety and rigid adherence to structure and routine. Equally key to the plot, however, is Raymond’s exceptional memory and powers of mental calculation, which his brother Charlie exploits to his advantage in the Las Vegas casinos. For movie-makers and writers, special or savant skills have the obvious attraction of making the character exciting, exceptional and exotically different, but as you have learned in earlier weeks, such skills are by no means representative.

In a recent portrayal of autism in fiction, Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, takes the unusual and important step of portraying a female character who is strongly implied to have autism. The character Lisbeth Salander contrasts strongly with Raymond Babbitt in her independence, autonomy and capacity for deception. Yet the motif of special powers of memory and exceptional skills – IT skills, as befits the era – still surfaces in this portrayal.

A recent study (Nordahl-Hansen et al., 2017) compared portrayals of the autism spectrum in 26 films and four television series with the core symptoms in the DSM-5 criteria. Encouragingly, they found that most of the portrayals aligned well with the diagnostic criteria. However, there was still an undue emphasis on savant characteristics. The authors also expressed concern that the characters tended to be stereotypically autistic, thus failing to portray the rich variation and individuality of autism

A Guardian article about the BBC series The A Word offers an interesting critique by parent Simon Hattenstone and his autistic daughter Maya (Hattenstone and Hattenstone, 2016).

An important step towards giving autism an authentic voice in the media was taken by the TV series Holby City. In 2016, the series introduced an autistic character, Jason Haynes, played by the young autistic actor, Jules Robertson.